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VOICES OF SCOTLAND Britain is going hungry

Growing food poverty is among the realities of Tory Britain — radical solutions are needed, argues CHRIS STEPHENS MP

THE politics of food is essential. But, unfortunately, it is not stated often enough, nor the struggle of those who suffer from food insecurity, nor its causes. 

Yet, food insecurity reflects the broken social security and immigration systems we have in Britain.  

A recent visit to a Summer Lunch Club provided an illustrative example. 

Volunteers noticed that one child was not eating. When pressed, the child said he was saving it to take home to his pregnant mother, who hadn’t eaten for days. 

Volunteers are now engaging with the family and providing support, including emergency food aid provision. 

However, this is the shocking reality of the immigration system in Britain and is a far cry from the rhetoric we heard during the recent debate on the new (anti) immigration Bill — correctly described by John McDonnell as reminiscent of an EDL rally.

This Bill should have been ditched long before the crisis we now see in Afghanistan, yet the horrors unfolding in recent weeks makes the case for scrapping the Bill now overwhelming. A Bill that, in effect, could criminalise refugees for trying to reach safety.  

Tory MPs who contributed to the debate on the Bill could also have benefited from a Show Racism the Red Card training session outlining the differences in simple terms between a refugee, an asylum-seeker and an economic migrant — a subject we will come back to in a future column. 

Yet, the reality of life as an asylum-seeker in Britain is to be paid the equivalent of what a youth trainee or an apprentice was getting paid in the 1990s. How many government ministers could live on £39 a week?

As an MP, over the last 18 months, I have worked with these food aid providers both locally and at the national level, who are stepping in to provide vital help to those being let down by the Westminster government who find themselves at crisis points. 

A vital part of this work has been chairing several webinars with the Independent Food Aid Network (Ifan) to discuss challenges people face in accessing food and seek policy solutions. 

The evidence that momentous change is required is overwhelming.

While the Job Retention Scheme, and a £20 increase in the standard rate of universal credit, have provided vital support for millions of households with less or no work over the past 15 months. 

Evidence suggests that all too many people have still been unable to afford food following a loss of employment, at times coupled with increased outgoings.

A similar theme was shared by Viv Sawers of Govan HELP, based in Glasgow. 

She reported that people were accessing the on-site pantry, “who have never had to access a service like ours before and probably wouldn’t have to again. 

“So, for instance, people who were part-time and generally had quite good incomes but had nothing at their backs, so when lockdown restrictions came in, there was no room for them to earn any more money and they were just totally stuck — but that was relatively short-term.”

While the efforts of food aid providers described above have enabled people in desperate situations to put food on the table following a loss of work, the sentiments expressed reveal a deep sense of injustice. 

People found in these instances that the system was unable to support their basic requirements during times of need, and, as a result, they required food aid.

That injustice was also felt across the board by employees and the self-employed alike. 

Indeed, adverse changes to employees’ circumstances often had knock-on effects for the self-employed.

Evidence provided by a self-employed childminder described the horror of the downward spiral from financial security to insecurity: “Financial instability creates a bigger vacuum that you get lost in. You’re not able to buy food, you’re not able to pay your bills, you’re not able to pay for your heating, and so you get sucked into debt even more. 

“The more you’re sucked in, the harder it is to get out. I rely on my parents to keep me employed. One parent’s hours were reduced from 40 to 16. 

“They still needed childcare but couldn’t afford it. The rug was pulled from under her, and so it was pulled from under me. 

“At the same time, you have to prioritise the bills, the heating, and the food is the last thing most of us as parents think of.”

The growing digital divide is another barrier to equal access to information and advice. 

The closure of libraries and jobcentres in the pandemic, it was reported, often removed the only digital access people had. 

In addition, accessing online information and addressing financial issues independently is made much harder by the unaffordability of IT equipment and broadband and the lack of IT skills and confidence. 

This creates a digital divide that has been further exacerbated by the drive for benefit applications to be made and managed online.

Additionally, if financial support is not person-centred and meaningful, it is increasingly difficult for disabled people to access the support they need — and the numbers reflect this. 

Half of the adults in problem debt, for example, also have a mental health problem and people with severe mental illness are 2.3 times more likely to experience money or debt issues than those without a severe mental illness.

These are the realities of Tory Britain and those who cannot afford food. It requires radical solutions.

The principle of social insurance needs to be bolstered within both social security policy and its administration.

In particular, the idea of a non-repayable starter payment for new universal credit claimants to cushion against a loss of earnings during the minimum of five weeks it takes to process and pay new claims.   

The role of contributory benefits needs to be strengthened, again with the aim of cushioning against a loss of earnings and the need to take on more debt.

That same principle needs to guide creating a new social security contract for the self-employed — a policy of “robust unemployment insurance” for the self-employed. 

So when future economic shocks affect Britain, they are never again exposed to gross insecurity and hardship.

Both the coverage and adequacy of payments for pandemic-related self-isolation or sickness urgently need to be upgraded to make a choice between poverty and sickness a thing of the past.

In England, the eligibility threshold for free school meals needs to be revised so that no child living in a household on a low income is disqualified from being eligible. 

Indeed, moves are being made in other parts of Britain towards the universal provision of free school meals. 

The evidence of the need to abolish the bedroom tax, which continues to erode people’s incomes, both in and out of work. 

In one example, cited by Feeding Devon, a carer with fluctuating hours had been trying without success to find a smaller home that would enable her to avoid paying the bedroom tax and had needed to rely on foodbanks to stave off hunger.

In response to this, I have tabled several private member’s Bills, including the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (Powers) Bill. 

This Bill would give the Ombudsman the power to proactively identify and investigate systemic problems in the social security system and make recommendations to the secretary of state.

I will continue to campaign on these issues and provide solutions to constituents and those across these islands to combat food insecurity.  

I am pleased to pioneering the plans for Scotland’s first “community supermarket,” which will open in Nitshill, Glasgow, in December, providing affordable food, a cafe, and a community room. 

This will be a welcome resource in my constituency that I am sure will help many of my fellow Glaswegians.

Chris Stephens is the MP for Glasgow South West, and a member of the DWP select committee. 


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